In Their Words: An Ode To Legendary Actor, Singer & Female Impressionist David de Alba

Editor's Note: The following piece, written by Potrero Hill archivist Peter Linenthal, recounts the career of David de Alba, who performed at North Beach's iconic Finocchio’s Club for nearly two decades and ran the Potrero Hill salon, ‘Heri Hairstylist to the Stars,’ until 1989.

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Finocchio’s emcee Carrol Wallace announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s bring to the stage the warm and charming personality of David de Alba!” and out walks David in a feathered and spangled gown, coiffed and made up as Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli or Boy-Chic, singing, dancing and impersonating the ladies he admires.

The club on Broadway is big, well-lit and classy, still concerned enough about it’s early days as a pick-up bar in the Tenderloin that the owner’s policy for performers is, “Come in as a boy; leave as a boy.” In other words, being seen on the street in drag or mingling with the customers was prohibited. Somehow Eve Finocchio’s favorites, a chorus of Eve-ettes, was exempt.

Employees were either Pets or Pests, although David was able to manage staying somewhere in between. Employees nicknamed it The House of Hate. Early each morning, performers reported last night’s infractions to Mrs Finocchio. When David approached her about that, she answered, “David, I listen to everything they tell me, but I only listen to what I want.”

David worked there from the early 1970s until 1989, at first steadily, then sporadically as a ‘guest spot performer’ at the beck and call of Mrs. Finocchio. Today, David remembers those years as the best in his life. He hadn’t grown up dreaming of becoming a female impersonator, but when the opportunity came, it made sense. He’d been perfecting those skills for years.

David's many acts.

David was an only child, born in Camaguey, Cuba. His father Heriberto Garcia worked for the railroad, and his mother, Dr. Tila, was an elementary school teacher and principal. They had a house in town, a beach house, a Belair Chevrolet, spent time at grandmother Emilia’s farm, and enjoyed an annual train trip to Havana where they heard David’s first idol at the Radio Progreso station, Olga Chorens, a star whose spectacular voice and dramatic style he admired, and took a photo with her.

David went to dancing school and had parts in elementary school plays. When Fidel Castro assumed power in 1959 promising moderate reforms, David’s family was one of many thousands afraid of reprisals against the middle class, and decided to come to the U.S.

David was sent ahead to Brewster Hall, a Florida boarding school. Young, suddenly alone and not speaking the language, David had a nervous breakdown. The school helped “put the parts back together.”

Then, after a year at the classy Graham-Eckes boarding school, David got a scholarship to Greenbriar Military School in West Virginia, which lasted one year: “Me clean a gun? That school didn’t make me butch but what I got was discipline, which has helped me the rest of my life. You had to be impeccably dressed.”

Then David joined his parents, who’d come to Chicago, and finished high school there. The family had lost almost everything, received no government help, and could only get dishwashing and busboy jobs at $1 an hour.

David earned a half scholarship to the American School of Beauty Culture, starting his hairdressing career. A friend who was a hairdresser asked if he could make him up as Judy Garland for the Halloween Ball “since you look so much like her. Can you sing?” David certainly could, and studied singing while starting what became a huge collection of Judy’s recordings and memorabilia.

David first performed in Chicago clubs like the Chesterfield but distinguished himself from other female impersonators by actually singing. “All the boys were just lip-synching, then called pantomiming, to Edyie Gorme and other stars, but not trying to impersonate.”

He became known as ‘The Male Judy Garland’. He saw her perform and still regrets that no camera caught the moment when she kissed him on the cheek.

The first time David De Alba performed as Judy Garland at Finocchio's, and the only photo of his Garland impersonation on stage at the club.

By the '40s and '50s, Judy had a big gay following and the question, “Is he a friend of Dorothy?” was code for, “Is he gay?”

David saw firsthand police harassment under mayor Dailey, and in 1969 he moved to San Francisco, working at Vyolet’s Wig Salon on Polk Street, and meeting Paul Ryner, his longtime partner.

David and Paul decided to live together as David’s parents were retiring. A chance recommendation from a realtor brought them all to Potrero Hill; David and Paul bought a home on De Haro from Charley Peterson and his parents one on Rhode Island.

A hair salon in an art deco building at 18th and Kansas St. became available and David went for it. There, Tila became his “personal secretary and therapist for the many ladies on the hill who came; everyone loved her because of her attitude.”

When location scouts were working on the TV pilot ‘Spies,’ to star Tony Curtis, they heard about the cozy salon on Potrero Hill run by a son and his mom. And when they saw the signed photos of movie stars on the walls of ‘Heri Hairstylist to the Stars,’ that synced the deal.

The filming crew brought excitement to the neighborhood. One local even brought her wedding photo for Mr. Curtis to sign. Another exclaimed “I just used the same john where Tony Curtis sat!”

And Tony, recalling his "Some Like It Hot" days, told David, “I take off my hat to you for working in drag, it’s difficult!”

By then David was in his 20s and performing at Finocchio’s, introduced to the club through styling female impersonators’ wigs at his Hill salon. There were four shows a night for straight audiences full of tourists. He became the club’s only Cuban bilingual singer, often singing songs made famous by Olga Chorens, such as ‘La Virgen de la Macarena’, but ‘I’m Gonna Live Until I Die’ became his theme song.

David’s Chicago stage name, Heri del Valle, difficult for the emcee to announce, was changed to David de Alba and he dubbed his singing persona ‘Boy-Chic’, a take on the Yiddish endearment ‘boychick’.

Moving between the salon and the club, life was good and years passed quickly. David was “..often flabbergasted that after the Cuban losses, I was performing in front of stars like Richard Chamberlain, Sergio Franchi, Colonel Sanders and Arthur Murray!”

There were always plusses and minuses about Finocchio’s. The pay was dependable but you didn’t know how long you’d be working. “We don’t fire people, we just let them go,” was their policy. Dealing with the jealousies and politics among employees took getting used to. One performer was let go for refusing to wear the orange costume Eve Finocchio picked out. But Finocchio’s was also known as The Elephant’s Burial Ground, a place where older performers could continue their careers.

David performing as Salome at Finocchio's in the early '80s.

The Potrero View gave David a beauty tip column : ‘Ask Heri’. His mother helped run the salon and his father had found a group of fellow expats from Camaguey at the local Cuban Club.

On trips to Miami to see Olga Chorens perform, she was amazed to see the photo of the little boy from Cuba, now a Finocchio’s star. She thinks so highly of his act, that she offered David an award, a rare tribute from the impersonated to the impersonator.

1989 was not a good year. Just as an offer to “be our Judy” at a new Cage Aux Folles club came, Paul lost his job and they had to move, followed by David’s parents, eventually settling in Las Vegas.

A more difficult period came in 2008 with the loss of David’s mother Tila. “That’s when the umbilical cord was broken. We were like twin souls and now there is an emptiness.”

His family was interested in psychic phenomena, and Tila said she’d come back as his guardian angel. David believes a good psychic like The Long Island Medium Theresa Caputo or The Hollywood Medium Tyler Henry could bring him a message from Tila from the other side.

David is at a bittersweet stage of life when many friends and family have died and memories become increasingly important, “But at least I’m blessed to be able to go back to a pretty past.”

He’s not interested in returning to Potrero Hill. When he visited SF in 2003, “...it was like I’d been in a coma and woke up to a broken dream.” The beauty shop was closed and Finocchio’s had become a lawyer’s office.

David continues performing twice a year, “stronger with more essence,” getting together with Las Vegas fans and responding to emails from around the world. He’s in touch with Olga Chorens, who’s conducting a radio show at 92. He performed the show ‘Frozen in Time, An Evening at Finocchio’s’ on April 24th in Las Vegas.

Poster advertising one of David's recent shows.

“Now I’m a teacher like my mother, teaching the American Songbook, and about Olga, Judy and Liza.”

Videos featuring David de Alba are on YouTube, including an interview with The Potrero Hill Archives Project. We gave David our Potrero Hill 2016 Performer of the Year Award.

Tourists were once told: When you visit San Francisco you must see two things—the Golden Gate Bridge and the boys at Finocchio’s. The bridge is just fine and David de Alba keeps the other possibility very much alive.

David's fans are encouraged to reach him directly at cubanlegend@cox.net. 

Thanks to Paul R. for the tip.

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In their words an ode to legendary actor singer female impressionist david de alba